Outside magazine, May 1998
The Ecology of Eden, by Evan Eisenberg (Knopf, $30). In this intellectual grab-bag of a book, Eisenberg proves to be one of those all-too-rare literary creatures: a serious environmental thinker who is also a sprightly entertainer and a born raconteur. He winningly riffs his way across centuries of history and broad swaths of science, tracing how our notions of "a time or place of perfect harmony between humans and nature" have both inspired hopeful nostalgia and collided with reality. To Eisenberg, Eden represents not just a theological construct — the home of Adam and Eve before the Fall — but also the idea of once-sacred wilderness. Such paradisiacal retreats aren't merely figments of our imaginations, but places that for millennia have reflected "waves of human-led change and the myths by which humans have made sense of them." He maintains, for example, that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden may have its roots in the decline of agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia. Big-think theories aside, Eisenberg has a gift for memorable facts ("An acre of good topsoil may house 11 tons of insects, worms, nematodes, fungi, and microbes") and for finding fresh ways to frame environmental arguments. He writes of a centuries-old Cabalist theory which contends that "in order to create the world, God had to draw himself inward — to take a step back, as it were," a strategy in "self-retraction" that Eisenberg urges us to emulate. Though his attempt to act as referee for the embattled factions of contemporary environmentalism — earth-centric Deep Ecologists on one hand and technocratic "Planet Managers" on the other — sometimes comes off as Pollyannaish, the book makes up for it with fascinating digressions on climate change, the natural history of epidemics and plagues, and "biomimesis" (technology learning from nature). In the end, to be human is to wander outside Eden in the world of culture, but "what we can do is stand in a right relation to Eden." It's both a prescription and a warning: "The blade that whirls at the gates of Eden is not our enemy," Eisenberg concludes. "If we try to get around it, we end up trampling either Eden or our own humanity."
Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture, by Eric Zencey (University of Georgia Press, $25). Readers may recognize Zencey's name from his first book, 1995's historical mystery novel Panama, in which the nineteenth-century historian Henry Adams was put through some gripping fictional-thriller paces. Before he became a novelist, however, Zencey was a history professor and a regular contributor to the North American Review, the scholarly journal that Adams once edited and in which much of this book first appeared. He is also, as it turns out, a fine essayist with a graceful, quiet voice and a talent for putting some of the more vexing environmental questions of our time into perspective.
Like Eisenberg, Zencey has a firm grasp on the way our hopes and dreams color our interdependence with nature. In the opening essay, the 44-year-old writer argues that his generation's revival of environmentalism has continued to be tainted by the revolutionary pretensions of the late sixties and early seventies, when a complete break from the past seemed both possible and desirable. Rather than despairing of anything short of a new heaven and earth, he writes, environmentalists should draw inspiration from the deep-rooted continuity observable in nature: "The richest life, it seems to me, is lived in an awareness of the maximum number of connections backwards and forwards in time, all of which are brought together in the individual's experience of the narrow moment of 'now.'" Good professor that he is, Zencey's message is that an educated long view is the best weapon. In other sections, always bolstered with fine personal and historical evidence, he contemplates our slippery conception of old-growth forests, the shaky landscape of southern California, and a facetious proposal to appoint an "Ecology Pope" to help assuage our sense of guilt about the environment. Though we prefer to believe that history and nature are separate categories, Zencey's achievement is to convince us that they can only be understood together.
Lost Lake, by Mark Slouka (Knopf, $21). It's all but impossible to read a collection of short stories about fishing without thinking about Hemingway, but Mark Slouka's first book is so rich and affecting that it incorporates all kinds of influences while remaining singular and quite unforgettable. One of those other influences is Milan Kundera, the great Czech chronicler of sex, memory, and exile — a connection made stronger by the Czech immigrant families that come to fish every year at Lost Lake, a bucolic spot north of New York City that is the setting for nearly all these stories. Most are narrated by the son of one immigrant couple, who recounts his experiences over many summers at Lost Lake: learning the tall tale of how a one-armed veteran of the Spanish-American War built the dam that made the lake; fishing for bullhead, bass, and pickerel; and plumbing the mysteries of the vaguely haunted adults who drink, hide out, mourn, and sometimes serenely embrace pleasure on its shores.
Much of the pleasure here is Slouka's writing, as in this shapely sentence describing a monstrous carp the narrator's father catches while night-fishing: "It had scales like silver dollars and a round, ugly mouth that kept kissing at the air and I remember watching it flop heavily in the crushed reeds, leaping in and out of the shadows like a thing accustomed to the earth, thumping the damp grass." But Slouka also has a wider talent for capturing the outbreaks of joy and grief that punctuate life at a summer place and showing us how each generation casts shadows and uplifts its children as they share the wide-open days at the water's edge.